Last week N.'s piano lesson was moved up to 9 a.m., which is practically dawn for us. So when he came home a bit after 10, he felt like he had a wide open free day stretching ahead of him. He asked me to take him to the library, so I dropped my work (giving Tim an unplanned day off!) and we took a long leisurely walk there in the cool breeze and bright spring sun, wending our way through downtown to look at N.'s favorite buildings. At the library, N. found the picture books he'd come for and promptly read them all. The children's room was completely deserted. We often feel rushed at the library, having wedged our visit in with other errands, but this time we had no particular schedule, so we sat at the tiny table on tiny chairs and read silently.
Eventually we got hungry so we checked out our books and had lunch at a bakery-cafe downtown. At one point while we ate N. said, "History quiz: what's the oldest English settlement in the U.S.?" I guessed "Roanoke" and he didn't know what that was. So I told him briefly, but then wasn't sure what in my account was myth, so I looked it up on my phone and read him this retelling. We talked about why Jamestown counts as the first settlement and not Roanoke.
This conversation reminded N. that Sunday night he'd wanted to know more about the Henry Burden Iron Works in Troy, NY. He'd been looking at a cool little book he has called Smithsonian in Gear and been arrested by a photo of a huge abandoned water wheel. He wanted to know why and how the factory buildings collapsed. Was there a fire or explosion? So we decided to go back to the library to see what we could find.
I poked around in the library's online catalog while N. sat at a table and drew trains. I'd prefer not to do research for him -- it's good for him to practice this skill himself! -- but he hadn't had any time to draw all day, and he simply needed to. My computer search turned up nothing; while I waited for N. to finish his drawing so we could ask a reference librarian for help, I googled on my phone and found via the Library of Congress a wonderful 26-page essay on the Burden Iron Works written by historian Samuel Rezneck in 1969 for the Historic American Engineering Record. I read it aloud to N. while he continued to draw. Rezneck's account tell us not only about Henry Burden, his inventions, and his factory, but it effectively gestures at larger contexts. For example, after describing Burden's invention of a steam-powered horseshoe machine that produced 3600 horseshoes an hour without a human hand, Rezneck notes that "unhappily machine-made horseshoes facilitated the conduct of large-scale wars in Europe and America during the nineteenth century, from the Crimean and the Austro-Italian wars in the 1850s on, and particularly the American Civil War..." As I came to these kinds of analytical moments in Rezneck's essay, I paused in my reading and we talked about what they meant, about why machine-made horseshoes might facilitate large-scale war, or why in 1861 Burden built a huge expansion to his factory after receiving the Union horseshoe contract, or what was happening in elsewhere in the country at the turn of the 20th century to make water-power less economical than coal and to stop the great water wheel.
Finally N. decided he was ready to go home, and we took the bus instead of walking, an uncommon treat for N. since our city's public transportation system rarely offers the most convenient way to get where we are going. All in all, this was an ideal day, the kind that makes me so grateful that we are able to homeschool, learning interesting things and hanging out together.
|MEN OF PROGRESS, by Christian Schussele (1824-1879). National Portrait Gallery.|